Essay / Misc.

Creation Set Free

Here’s a sneak peek at a book review I wrote for a future issue of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture.The summer 06 issue is just out. Hassle your library to subscribe!

This book, Sigurd Bergmann’s Creation Set Free, is interesting, but I can only recommend it in the qualified ways I describe in the review. I got to hear Bergmann speak at the American Academy of Religion meeting last year, and watched him in conversation with some American theologians. Bergmann is proud to be in the first wave of “ecotheologians of liberation” (which he swears with a straight face is not just a trendy title). But when a more excitable, more reckless American theologian took his book’s ideas in strange new directions (“GOD IS A BIRD! WORSHIP THE AVIAN DIVINITY!), Bergmann back-pedaled hard. Partly to distance himself from the BIRD GOD guy, Bergmann emphasized the fact that it’s been ten years since the first edition of Creation Set Free, and he’s moved to new conversations in fields like “aesth/ethics” (which he swears with a straight face is not just a trendy title).

Creation Set Free is a pretty hard read, partly because the material is difficult, but partly because the author’s style makes undue demands on the reader. For all that, I’m glad I read it and will be keeping an eye on Bergmann’s future work.

Sigurd Bergmann, Creation Set Free: The Spirit as Liberator of Nature (Eerdmans, 2005).

Sigurd Bergmann is a theologian who teaches at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. Creation Set Free, a volume in Eerdman’s Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age series, is Bergmann’s first major publication in English. It will seem to most of the Anglophone theological world that a new voice has just made itself heard in Christian doctrine, but Bergmann has in fact already authored a number of other books and essays, and it has been a full ten years since the publication of the original German edition on which this revised English translation is based.

The cosmos is enslaved by its alienation from God’s life of triune communion, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring the world out of that enslavement and into relationship. That is probably the central idea of the book. I say “probably” because Creation Set Free is really not about a central idea, and readers who look here for something so straightforward will inevitably be frustrated a few dozen pages into this wide-ranging (nearly 400 pages) book. The book is about connections, conversations, and whole constellations of ideas interacting with each other in dynamic complexes. The actual proposals emerge only as Bergmann moves around among the many influences and projects which are simultaneously at work in this book.

For example, the thesis that the enslaved cosmos is freed by the Spirit represents the convergence of three fields: liberation theology, ecotheology, and pneumatology. Bergmann calls his work “an ecotheology of liberation,” and devotes one chapter to reviewing the literature on “The Ecological Challenge to Theology” (chapter 1), one chapter to “Considerations from the Perspective of Liberation Theology” (chapter 5), and one chapter to “Methodological Considerations,” exploring his method of correlation and the construction of local theologies. As Bergmann enters each of these conversations, he reports the views of other writers and then develops his own position with considerable nuance.

To develop an “ecotheology of liberation” with such attentiveness to dialogue partners may seem like quite enough for one book, but the above summary does not even mention Bergmann’s major dialogue partner, the fourth-century Cappadocian father Gregory of Nazianzus. This book is an instance of retrieving the theology of one ancient Christian thinker and bringing him into conversation with contemporary theology. The sub-title of the original German edition of Creation Set Free was “The Trinitarian Cosmology of Gregory of Nazianzus in the Horizon of an Ecological Theology of Liberation.” Bergmann provides a careful and substantive reading of Gregory’s theology, especially the richness of his account of the relationship between the triune God and the created world which in all its dimensions is connected to and dependent on the creator from whom it is radically distinct. Straddling late antiquity (Cappadocian trinitarian cosmology) and late modernity (Western ecotheology of liberation), Bergmann succeeds, page after page, in presenting Gregory of Nazianzus as a theologian who deserves our most attentive listening, even though he’s dead. It is difficult to think of another recent theologian who submits himself so rigorously to the humble task of putting himself at the service of an ancient thinker and developing, from ancient texts, categories for doing contemporary theology.

The guiding categories which Bergmann develops from Gregory are four: Sociality, movement, suffering, and spirit. These provide the framework for Bergmann to elaborate the thesis that the cosmos is enslaved by its alienation (suffering) from God’s life of triune communion (sociality), and it is the work of the Holy Spirit (spirit) to bring the world out (movement) of that enslavement and into relationship (sociality again, but also movement and spirit). Bergmann handles each category almost as an image in a poem, working it for its associative powers and bringing as many things as possible into connection with it. To take one example, the theme of movement is elaborated in these areas: movement as a divine attribute, eternal movement of the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, the movement of God creating, movement within differentiated localities in creation, human thought and emotion as movement, movement toward good or evil, the movement of redemptive history, correspondence between God’s own movement and the movement of creation’s liberation, and the modern scientific reduction of movement to quantitative change within space. Bergmann handles each of the four themes with equal expansiveness, and always setting his own views over against other positions.

The best approach to Creation Set Free is not to try to locate its central claims or to extract its arguments, rather the most profitable way to read this book is to scan it for little epiphanies scattered throughout, and for hints at subjects for further reflection. I set the book down filled with new (and unanswered) questions. It makes a kind of sense that, as Bergmann insists, creation is not simply a stage on which human redemption takes place, but is itself a subject of redemption. But all the key questions open up just here: for one thing, how is human creation (with its personhood and ethical accountability) to be related to the rest of creation, and their interconnected redemptions correlated? Apparently aware of these questions, Bergmann devotes pages to contrasting anthropocentrism and cosmocentrism, but it never became any clearer (to this reader, at least) why St. Francis preached to the birds. About such things it is possible now to wonder at a deeper level and with more complexity. If that kind of experience is satisfying to you, you are likely to profit from this book.

Like Jürgen Moltmann (who writes the foreword), Bergmann’s intellectual style produces a book that may be more stimulating and suggestive than definitive or conclusive. Often when a major section of the book is coming to an end, Bergmann politely declines to offer a final word on the subject, instead providing an abrupt transition to hurry the reader along to the next topic. The last seven pages of the book, however, contain 28 “Summary Theses” of a few sentences each, which brings the reader a welcome promise of conciseness and focus. The fact that there are 28 of them, however, and that they are relatively long as summary theses go, is indicative of that fact that for Bergmann, the point is not to boil things down to the essential. The point, apparently, is to cast the net as wide as possible and drag in a host of dialogue partners. Judged by those criteria, Bergmann succeeds (both here and in his subsequent work) at bringing to the theological table some unlikely and unconventional conversationalists: ecological scientists, physicists, bio-ethicists, modern art critics, architects and city planners, and so on. As provoker of interdisciplinary conversations, Bergmann is uniquely gifted and must be perfectly suited for his post at a University of Science and Technology. As a systematic theologian, Bergmann is a great connector and, less obviously, also a great worrier. He is alert to dangers on all sides, suspicious of the naivety and dilettantism on the part of theologians entering these conversations, and as jealous as a postliberal about guarding the distinctly Christian theological voice in the midst of cultural encounters. Without stinting on expansiveness, Bergmann is surprisingly and self-consciously conservative about a range of issues. Not for a moment does he veer in the direction of collapsing the Holy Spirit into human spirit or an immanent force of nature, which is an error so pervasive in ecotheology as to be almost a defining mark of the discipline. He makes a major contribution to the methodology of contextual theologies when he sketches a way for tradition to serve as a criterion for the “series of local theologies” that constitute the history of doctrine: Bergmann goes beyond merely insisting on the recognition of tradition, by re-describing tradition as “the social memory in which the communities of saints remember the series of local theologies.”

Creation Set Free may sprawl and even sometimes wander, but that is because it contains such a wealth of ideas and insights. Not every book of contemporary theology should be like this —I look forward to reading some shorter books by Bergmann in the future, with fewer trailheads and more recognizable endpoints—but certainly some should be.

Fred Sanders
Biola University

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